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The first day on the job at a new organization is commonly structured around introducing employees to the work environment and company culture. In addition to the long list of human resources forms new employees are asked to fill out, they hear about why the organization they have joined is so special. They learn about the company’s founders, its values and why they should be proud to be a part of the organization. The overriding goal is to show new employees “how things are done around here” and to instill in them a sense of pride in their new affiliation.
At many organizations, onboarding processes have a common theme: indoctrinating new employees into the organizational culture. Not surprisingly, human resources professionals begin the discussion about how to build and retain talent by stressing how important it is to get employees to understand and commit to the companies’ values starting on “day one.” This represents the norm at many companies, and it is useful because it enables newcomers to fit in and conform to organizational norms — giving leaders some control over what they can expect from newcomers.
However, we have found that the traditional methods of onboarding have some serious weaknesses. They assume that organizational values are something to be taught to and adopted by newcomers. This creates a tension: When newcomers are “processed” to accept an organization’s identity, they are expected to downplay their own identities, at least while they are at work. But subordinating one’s identity and unique perspectives may not be optimal in the long run for either the organization or the individual employee because suppressing one’s identity is upsetting and psychologically depleting.1 Moreover, newcomers actually may not internalize the organizational values even if they appear to comply through external behaviors; over and above compliance, leaders need employee engagement if they want employees to contribute on their own and in ways that are not programmed.
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1. A.A. Grandey, "When ‘The Show Must Go On’: Surface Acting and Deep Acting as Determinants of Emotional Exhaustion and Peer-Rated Service Delivery," Academy of Management Journal 46, no. 1 (February 2003): 86-96.
2. C.A. O’Reilly and J. Chatman, ‘‘Organizational Commitment and Psychological Attachment: The Effects of Compliance, Identification, and Internalization on Prosocial Behavior,’’ Journal of Applied Psychology 71, no. 3 (August 1986): 492-499.
3. D.M. Cable, F. Gino and B. Staats, “Breaking Them In or Eliciting Their Best? Reframing Socialization Around Newcomers’ Authentic Self-Expression.” Administrative Science Quarterly 58, no. 1 (March 2013): 1-36.
4. M.H. Kernis, “Toward a Conceptualization of Optimal Self-Esteem,” Psychological Inquiry 14, no. 1 (January 2003), 1–26; and I.D. Yalom, “Existential Psychotherapy” (New York: Basic Books, 1980).
5. P.F. Hewlin, “And the Award for Best Actor Goes to…: Facades of Conformity in Organizational Settings,” Academy of Management Review 28, no. 4 (October 2003): 633-642.
6. E.T. Higgins, “Self-Discrepancy Theory: What Patterns of Self-Beliefs Cause People to Suffer?,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 22 (1989): 93-136.
7. J.M. Twenge, “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before” (New York: Free Press, 2006).
8. D.M. Cable, “Change to Strange: Create a Great Organization by Building a Strange Workforce” (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2007).
9. K. Freiberg and J. Freiberg, “Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success” (New York: Broadway, 1998); and T. Hsieh, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose” (New York: Business Plus, 2010).
i. Cable, Gino and Staats, “Breaking Them In.”